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Illustration by Dougal MacPherson

Resetting Agency Culture

The internet is full of stories of “dream” agency environments: Google’s “sleep pods,” Yelp’s KegMate, this place’s air hockey table, that joint’s Zen rock garden. They read well in viral articles intended to induce cognitive salivation—the 3 p.m. cubicle fatigue equivalent of a SkyMall Bigfoot Garden Yeti statue while flying coach.

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But the truth is this: there’s so much more to fostering investment and growth in our team members than gimmicky perks. A true dream office, then, is one that invests deeply in the success of its employees.

While “investment” is often contextualized via finance-centric terminology, the way it anchors a healthy agency culture cannot be trivialized. Agency culture is the result of many factors and influences, but a healthy environment is one that encourages team members to speak up; that fosters inspiration through collective brainstorming and problem-solving; that doesn’t micro-analyze the way time is spent; and that enables employees to listen to and learn from one another.

Sadly, many agencies support a model that’s more about draining workers of every available bit of brainpower. A team member is hired to work and contribute, clearly, but not at the expense of being devalued or dehumanized. Employees are not the equivalent of a dust-bunny-gobbling Roomba, careening from point A to point B with little to no direction. Thoughtful changes in approach—from the way people are brought into the team, to the approach to creativity and communication, to the support for professional development—can make a big difference in employees’ happiness and dedication.

The new Day One

With new hires, many agencies operate under the “jump right into it” methodology; I’m sure most of us have experienced this at some point in our own careers. On Monday, we commute into the new office, are greeted by a terse “Welcome” and a handshake, then get seated at a workstation and immediately lobbed into a project. But by then, the grandest of opportunities toward employee investment—acclimating them as a human rather than as a “worker”—has already been lost.

To prevent that, I’ve created a different kind of onboarding experience at my agency, Nansen. We begin Day One on a Friday, and use the following process for new design hires (though with some adjustments, the experience can apply to any role):

Acclimation

The first half of the day is setup: coworker meet-and-greets, personalizing and configuring their laptop for their own level of comfort, and working with the appropriate team members to secure licenses and install the tools they need.

Conversation

The day in the office proper effectively ends around noon. Over an off-site lunch, there’s conversation: on design, on creative inspiration, on how our team functions within the organization, on current and future projects. The clock isn’t watched, judgy gazes aren’t cast, and implications of seniority or hierarchy are left off the table. Taking a team member out to lunch on their first day isn’t rocket science; how they’re engaged (constructive dialogue versus cell phone tunnel vision) is where we see the most value.

Inspiration

With questions answered, there’s only one expectation for the day: we make a visit to anywhere in the city that inspires the designer. While the role is contextualized by digital endeavors, inspiration has no such limitations. For some, it might take the form of Chicago architecture; for others, a museum’s collection. Understanding what has influenced them creatively, then, provides insight into their approach to visual communication that exceeds what folio work can yield.

Reflection

By this point, a first day of copious amounts of healthy discussion (and coffee, and walking) has served to establish a tone of humanized dialogue. By the business clock there’s typically not much time remaining; as such, the remainder of the day and weekend can be taken for thought and reflection on what was, very likely, a first day unlike any other previously experienced.

Monday, then, remains the day to begin client and project understanding and familiarity. Now serving as Day Two, it has been prefaced by a tangible and immersive demonstration of how their thoughts and voice are valued, and how the creative team functions. While some of the day can be adjusted or tweaked per the role being filled, this process demonstrates our agency culture and fosters mutual respect and appreciation.

A healthy dynamic

It’s staggering how much relationship dynamics can, and will, undermine your team members’ collective confidence. Lack of constructive mentorship and supportive guidance, or leaders who elevate themselves above those whose skillsets they should be cultivating—these things are as poisonous as open hostility.

In a junior role I occupied eons ago, the culture was openly hostile toward mistakes and subjective failure. Whenever I was given the opportunity to present my work to a client, leadership’s attitude was one of baited anticipation toward mistakes I might make (perceived or factual), combined with self-preservation of ego. After wrapping things up, I knew it was a toss-up as to whether management would simply leave the room without event (best case scenario), or if I’d get pulled into any of a handful of Herman Miller-furnished offices for denigration. This type of “leadership” behavior induces anxiety, inhibits confidence, and is tantamount to psychological abuse. No amount of employee compensation validates flaunting your own insecurity.

In contrast, presenting work should always be an opportunity for employees to thrive and succeed. To that end, preceding any client-facing walkthrough of a project, I give my team some initial thoughts on what we should be covering—“Don’t assume the client knows what we know: why we did what we did and what the benefit is to the user and to the project’s goals”—and I clarify our presentation roles—“I’ll set the presentation up, and should I chime in during your walk-through, it’s to supplement your dialogue.”

If your team member is junior and hasn’t presented their work before, give them the chance per their level of comfort. It can start small. On completion, have an open conversation without any implication of retribution. Dialogue is formed by feedback, not belittlement and threats. The ultimate goal is exposing them to the process, and giving them the (well-supported) chance.

Providing and fostering an environment for open creativity and dialogue is valuable beyond measure. Value conversation over oration, collaboration over delegation.

In practice, a step further

One of the career development and employee investment perks we offer at my agency is sending our team members to a conference of their choice, anywhere in the US, all expenses paid. This is formally qualified on paper as: “Learn, contribute, and network at conferences of your choosing.”

The one stipulation is that, upon their return, the attendee presents to the agency what they got out of the opportunity, and the (potential) worth to other team members in attending next year. Not a bad deal, right? By and large, it’s a strong demonstration that we see employees as much more than pure instruments of client project execution; it shows that we want our team members to grow and evolve. That said, it could be taken further.

At Nansen a couple of years ago, we started a program called Wintercamp, with the goal of fostering active (over passive) learning. Everyone in our agency—all roles from our global locations—centralizes at a retreat in rural Sweden to create something together. We develop tools we can use in our daily process once back on home turf. We participate in open collaboration and non-adversarial discussion. We put faces to names of people only previously known from an email chain. Our titles are irrelevant; the teams we form, flat and collegial.

When participants aren’t focused on work, they cook for one another, have endless discussions about their mutual craft(s), and enjoy the surrounding expansive grounds and leisure activities. At the end of each day, the various project teams present to each other what they’ve accomplished, what the pitfalls were, and solicit open and honest feedback.

People return to their home offices recharged. Invigorated and inspired by their global coworkers, they can act as living embodiments of our culture and brand. The projects worked on at Wintercamp continue as formal entities once we’re back at our desks, which helps keep the momentum going. And teams function more effectively, having worked toward common goals and made deeper personal connections.

To those who sign the checks, the grand total per person equals around a third of the cost of the standard “conference offering.” And we’re by no means the first, nor the only, team to do something like this; numerous agency retreats and “hackathons” already exist. Clearleft’s Hack Farm was very much the model by which we structured Wintercamp. Twitter’s quarterly internal Hack Week has yielded everything from practical functionality like the ability to archive your own tweets to the more fanciful open-source photo-tweeting birdhouse. Many organizations have seen the value of these types of internal retreats; the wins, they are aplenty.

Let’s reset

For many agencies, what I’m advocating represents a shift in thinking, a shift in process, a shift in how we track and value employees’ time. But we’ve made similar shifts before—like when we had to begin advocating for the user at the discovery level, bringing UX into the forefront of our approaches. Today, it’s exceedingly evident that time spent on UX is vital for a digital project’s livelihood; we need to apply that same reevaluation to time spent on employee success.

Whether this serves as procedural affirmation or a wake-up call, team member advocacy is our obligation. If you’re in agency leadership and read this with head nods and all-knowing winks, the highest of fives to you, sir or madam. Conversely, if this all seems unfamiliar, even better—you have an opportunity to create a better environment, one that doesn’t use “being the last to leave the office” as your main metric of employee dedication (the norm in far too many agencies).

To those currently in unhealthy, unsupportive, unengaging cultures: that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach come Sunday evening as the work week looms large needn’t be the norm. When the passion toward your craft isn’t fostered and equalled by your agency’s leaders, your options are self-evident: an open and honest discussion with the cultural stakeholder(s), or liberating yourself from your current role.

If you’re looking toward new opportunities, taking the pulse of a potential new employer’s culture is a paramount step. Pay attention to a few key things:

  • What kind of story are they telling? Agency sites that tell a story are all the rage. Quite often, the result can reveal internal culture. For example, what’s the focus of their full-screen background video? Most importantly, what gut feeling does it give you?
  • What can you spot in the space? We all exercise hyper self-awareness during an interview. Was that handshake too hard? Am I speaking slowly enough? Do I have salad in my teeth? Once in the space of an agency you’re interested in, however, give awareness to your surroundings as well. A day in the life of that agency is effectively unfolding before your eyes, their culture revealing itself plainly and openly.

Whether in a leadership role as the cultural advocate, or as a passionate and dedicated member of the team, we can agree: a happy and well-supported employee is a fueled, charged, inspired worker. Quality of work is elevated, quality of life is strengthened, and the agency’s brand becomes organically championed by the very people it supports. Our team members truly—no matter the size of the agency, the industry focus, or the specific role—deserve nothing less.

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